After lunch the events just kept coming. There were 18 academic paper presentations to choose from -- The Quest for Beauty Through Classical Proportion Systems was one -- followed by an excursion to Cal Lutheran University to view two exhibitions: Women by Women and Resonating Images III.
Nerdrum, who later commented that he sees himself as a kind of Hell's Angel -- a rebel operating outside official culture -- also offered his opinion that "the art historians in the universities have the same power as the American soldiers have in the world." He also recounted meeting the late art historian Arthur Danto who struck Nerdrum as being "like a school teacher" ready to enforce the authoritarian rules of art. Nerdrum came across as alternately sweet and over-dramatic and seemed to genuinely appreciate the attention he was receiving.
Many of those attending TRAC and listening to Aristides were classically trained painters whose careers have been diminished by their adherence to a set of aesthetic and philosophical values that have made them pariahs in the New York-centric world of contemporary art. At TRAC 2014 these same artists found themselves among a surging tide of new friends sympathetic to their point of view and the sense of camaraderie was profound and healing. Tired of being labeled as "kitsch" painters and fuddie-duddies, the TRAC crowd was excited to be in a context where there wasn't anyone present would would accuse them of not being an artist.
TRAC 2014 wasn't without its awkward moments. I suffered through one presentation in which the presenter railed against the work of Mark Rothko, condemned "billionaires buying crap" and then offered his own wife's paintings as a superior alternative. When accusing the art world of being biased and insular it isn't wise to promote the paintings of your family members…
I also couldn't help noting that although TRAC has made every effort to be progressive and open towards its membership there was only one African-American artist at the event. Classically and Academically oriented artists dominated the event but there was plenty of room for "moderates" -- I'm one of them -- who acknowledge and find inspiration in the tradition of representational art with modernist roots. All in all TRAC's flaws were minor and its achievements remarkable. "It felt like a tipping point," says artist Brandon Kralik.
Take a few minutes and watch at least part of James Kalm's video of the exhibition's top floor and you will get a sense of just how shambling and eccentric the 2014 Biennial is...
After watching Kalm's video -- which I think would make a terrific Portlandia episode -- I realized that it would make no sense for me to offer any specific observations about the Biennial at this point. Other critics who have seen the show are already busy doing that, and the reviews range from tepid to scathing. Friends tell me that there are some paintings in the show worth seeing, and I am going to take their word for it.
What really strikes me is that the Whitney missed a big opportunity in 1995. In a way, David Ross made TRAC necessary by failing to open up a conversation that could have changed the course of American art. It may just be an intellectual exercise, but can you imagine what kind of paintings we might be seeing in 2014 if some of the rigor and vitality offered by the painters in Steven Assael's protest group had been hybridized into contemporary American painting?
We know that American politics are tragically divisive at this point in time: does the nation's aesthetic culture have to be divided too? The contrast between the aesthetic vitality I saw at TRAC 2014 and the fatigue visible in the thrift store on steroids aesthetic of the Whitney Biennial makes me... well, just sad.
It seems appropriate to end this blog on a positive note by mentioning something that I like. While viewing Women by Women during the TRAC conference I came down some gallery stairs to find artist Betty Shelton -- an instructor at the Laguna College of Art and Design -- standing by her painting Prague's Madame Magdalena de Thebes. I pulled out my smartphone and captured this image of Betty beaming with justified pride. It looks like an extremely fine work of art to me... what do you think?